Poli-Hedrons, or, Political Science is an Oxymoron
With Election Day still
fresh (or perhaps festering) in everyone's memory, it seems like a
good time to talk about politics.
Classically, authors have used their stories as a form of rhetorical
argument, more in the tradition of philosophy than science or
engineering. The outcome of the story is determined by the author's
personal prejudices. Don't worry—I’m not here this month
to argue for HG Well's socialism, or Robert Heinlein's version of
libertarianism, or Cory Doctorow's post-scarcity voluntarism, or any
other specific ideology. Instead I want to address the process. I
spent the last couple of weeks working
at the polls, helping people cast their ballots, in a
process that raises serious questions for me as an independent voter
and as a scientist. Is this really the best way to run a country?
For instance, did you
know that voting is mandatory
in Australia? There are various arguments from analogy pointing out
what might happen in the US based on our similarities and differences
to the Land Down Under, but no one has tested it in the US
there was a US, in 1777! Argument on this topic has no
point other than selling papers. We have no relevant data. So why not
do an experiment, by having some randomly chosen counties in each
it, as the city of Greensboro is currently piloting participatory
Well, because politics
has winners and losers, of course, and no one wants to be a loser.
That's why pilot programs are rarely real experiments; they have
foregone conclusions. Here's one place where SF comes in. Stories
can help people to imagine outcomes that go beyond simple win/lose,
good/bad scenarios. Openly fictional stories also provide a little
bit of psychological distance that allows people to play with
outcomes rather than reflexively freaking out about them. This is why
I incorporate SF into my teaching. Biology is full of controversial
topics, from evolution
to race to abortion, about which many members of the public have
already made up their minds for reasons of cultural
identity. Fiction allows for a different way to
approach those topics.
Where to start? Where
are the current political experiments whose data could be
extrapolated into excellent stories?
particular method of direct democracy started in the Brazilian city
of Porto Alegre (just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) but has now
spread to at least 1,500
institutions around the world. Greensboro just
finished its first pilot year, and will spend $250,000 on 30
infrastructure projects around the city, projects proposed and voted
on by citizen volunteers, through a process that is independent of
the elected City Council and the appointed City Manager. Of course,
proponents of the process, like the non-profit that is running
Greensboro's program, present a one-sided
view, where a good story would include lots of
interesting behind-the-scenes conflict.
idea has equally enthusiastic boosters
and detractors (see the references below), both of which are on
display in this Freakonomics
podcast. Limited trials have provided limited data so
far, and those data are disputed for political reasons. There's a lot
of room for experiment and creativity on this one, perhaps by
combining it with local
currencies, which were in wide use during the Great
Depression, and which have long track records in certain communities,
such as the Ithaca
The Evolution Institute
a previous column,
I mentioned Peter Turchin's simulation work on using evolutionary
game theory to model historical events. This same think tank has
multiple projects putting evolutionary biology into practice:
redesigning the learning environment at New York State's Regents
Academy and a proposed school in Tampa, FL; rebuilding
neighborhoods in Binghamton,
NY, and Tampa; and a generic process for group-building
that avoids the “tragedy of the commons,” based on the
Nobel-winning work of Elinor Ostrom. Of course, there are a lot of
people who would never read an academic paper (or even a wonky
book), partly because they don't trust a bunch of
academics to report their data honestly or to interpret
it correctly. A novel about a researcher or activist
struggling with the design and implementation of a project would have
a whole different feel to it, and would reach a whole different
RCTs for Public Policy
are still a controversial
topic in political science. The gold standard for medical research is
the randomly controlled trial (RCT), which avoids the problem of
selection bias, which ruins a lot of studies. The RCT is the model
for the potential study of mandatory voting I mentioned above. This
method is barely used in public policy for a variety of reasons,
addressed one after the other in this report.
However, a group at Michigan State has built a database
of trials around the world that could be inspirational
for SF writers.
Of course, I'm not
asking for SF writers to actually do real-life experiments,
like Jack Lemmon's cartoonist character, Stanley Ford, running around
New York City figuring out body-disposal techniques in How
to Murder Your Wife, or Woody Wilkins building a
winged flight suit in Condorman.
If the Mythbusters
are any indication, it could be a hell of a lot of fun, though.
I think the most
important contribution SF could make is to model an attitude. As
Jonathan Breckon says here
in the context of British politics:
it’s not just the politicians who are to blame. We as voters
unrealistically demand perfect 20:20 policy vision from our political
masters. Government is not allowed to fail, or do U-turns, or to test
out new ideas. This makes it hard for adjustments, reversals and
tweaks. When the dust has settled after the election, we would all do
well to have a bit of humility. Allow those in power to try new
things out, and not destroy with media vitriol if their best laid
plans fail, as long as they learn and move on to make the best public
services, to benefit us all.
What if SF writers
could get a little meta? Rather than defending our particular
ideologies, what if we took a chill pill and presented cultures that
experiment their way to the future? Cory Doctorow makes a big deal
about the experimental culture among the techno-anarchist Maker
collectives in his upcoming novel Walkaway (which I
though his metaphor is A/B testing from software development
rather than the randomly controlled trial method from medicine that
I’m personally more familiar with. A/B testing definitely is in
use in political campaigns, but only
for getting elected. The actual business of governing
is apparently not as important.
Or go even a little
further. Take a page from role-playing
games, where it's standard practice for a game master
to roll a die to determine the weather, or the duration of an event,
or the player group's next encounter.
Roll a die to see what happens in your next story. Or roll two dice,
write both, and submit them to two different review groups. See what
Randall Hayes has
been, over the past three years, a Dwarf Locksmith, a Goblin
Illusionist, and a female Monk. It never occurred to him to play them
in random rotation. When he isn't dungeoneering in the world of Arden
Vul, he blogs at Steemit.com and runs his own
education company, Agnosia Media, LLC.
Detractors also use a lot of logical “woulds” and not a lot of experiments, which makes them a form of SF, as much as anything.
See? I didn’t read it, either.
“Think Jared Diamond meets Hunter S. Thompson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (who
makes an extended cameo). Even for the intellectually adventurous
reader, it is a scenic route, with mind-bending digressions that make
the main thread hard to follow.”
You say that like it’s a bad thing…
Common myths about Randomized Controlled Trials. This report also recommends
that all organizations spend at least 2% of their budgets on RCTs of
Real difficulties of doing RCTs in schools.
Beautiful AND functional!
I ran out of room before I could rant about these. Oh, well. Another time.
Read more by Randall Hayes